History of Myanmar (Burma)
Myanmar's history has been at various points magnificent, turbulent, tragic and at all times highly complex. Understanding something of Myanmar's ancient roots, colonial legacy and recent political upheavals will not only mean that you get more from your trip, but will also ensure that your visit is sensitive to the country's current, complex social and political climate.
It's thought that humans have lived in the area now occupied by modern-day Myanmar since 75,000 BC, but the first settlements that we know about for certain were established at least 13,000 years ago.
In about 1,500 BC, the people of Myanmar had become some of the very first humans on the planet to begin making bronze, farming rice and domesticating animals - and by 2,500 years ago, the region had become an important link in the trade route between the Middle East, India and China.
Pyu city-states & Mon kingdoms
The Pyu were the first documented inhabitants of modern-day Myanmar, and are first recorded living in the Irrawaddy valley in the second century BC. Having migrated south from present day Yunnan in China, these Tibeto-Burman-speaking people established 12 walled cities that we know of, including five major city-states and numerous smaller towns and cities across central Myanmar. The five largest cities were called Beikthano, Maingmaw, Binnaka, Halin and Sri Ksetra.
The Pyu people had a rich culture heavily influenced by their position on the trade route between India and China. Their civilisation was a largely peaceful one and flourished in Myanmar for the better part of a millennium. This long ascendancy had a significant influence on later civilisations in the area, and its legacy is still evident in Burmese culture today.
By the sixth century, Mon people had also begun to migrate into lower Myanmar from the kingdoms of Haribhunjaya and Dvaravati (both in modern-day Thailand). By the time the Pyu millennium came to a close in the ninth century, the Mon had established at least two small but prosperous kingdoms at Pegu and Thaton.
The Pagan Kingdom
The Pyu civilisation finally collapsed in the ninth century, when Bamar raiders from the Kingdom of Nanzhao (present-day Yunnan) led repeated invasions into Myanmar and founded the fortified town of Pagan (now known as Bagan) at the confluence of the Chindwin and Irrawaddy Rivers. This settlement gradually grew to form the basis of the Pagan Empire - which would rule Myanmar for around four hundred years. Though Pyu settlements did remain in upper Myanmar for the next three centuries, they were eventually absorbed by the Pagan Empire.
Pagan had been gradually expanding for two hundred years before it came into its golden age, which began when the great King Anawrahta took the throne in 1044. Anawrahta immediately set about building the Pagan Empire, which involved a series of broad-reaching socioeconomic and religious reforms, uniting the regions that would later form modern-day Myanmar for the first time in the country's history. These reforms included the introduction of Theravada Buddhism to upper Myanmar, an extremely important development in the country's history.
By the twelfth century, the Pagan Empire was almost on par with the Khmer Empire in terms of power and scale. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, most of the kingdom's wealth was channelled into the construction of over 10,000 Buddhist temples on the plains of Bagan - many of which survive to this day, forming what is inarguably the country's most impressive archaeological site.
It was this unharnessed growth of religious wealth, however, that would become the empire's downfall, and as untaxed religious assets grew the loyalty of courtiers and military officials increasingly difficult to control. This in turn led to internal instability, which weakened the state to the mounting threat of invasion by Mons, Mongols and Shans.
By the early 13th century, the Pagan Empire was being encroached upon from north and east by Shans, while the Mongols had conquered Yunnan (the Burmans' former homeland) and set their sights on pastures new. In 1287 they sacked Pagan, ending the empire's 250-year-long golden age and abandoning Myanmar to a long period of division, marked by petty kingdoms and war.
Following the fall of the Pagan Empire, Myanmar shattered into smaller kingdoms which were organised around four major power centres: Upper Myanmar, Lower Myanmar, the Shan States and Arakan. Within these power centres were more divisions still, with short-lived, minor kingdoms springing up and dying out at an accelerated pace. These included Toungoo (1287-1322), Myinsaing (1297-1310), Sagaing (1315-1364), Hanthawaddy Pegu (1287-1539, 1550-52), and many peripheral Shan states.
Of these, the Ava Kingdom was one of the more tenacious, lasting from 1364-1555 and uniting Toungoo and several Shan states under its power. The Shans, meanwhile, dominated much of northern and eastern Myanmar between 1287 and 1563, while Arakan persisted for the longest of all - maintaining an independent state in the Rakhine region from 1287 until 1785.
The Toungoo Dynasty reunited most of Myanmar as well as nearly all of modern-day Thailand and Laos into what would become the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia by 1580. This overextended kingdom collapsed rather swiftly, but was partially restored by 1650 - this time to encompass a much more manageable area covering most of modern-day Myanmar (excluding Arakan and the far south).
Under this new kingdom, legal and political reforms created a prosperous economy that lasted for 80 years. Despite this success, however, the kingdom suffered from internal rebellion and external raids, and the 266-year-old Toungoo Dynasty was toppled after a long decline in 1752.
The Tongoo Dynasty was succeeded by the Konbaung Dynasty, which built a great empire second only to the First Toungoo Empire in size. Continuing many of the reforms that had been started by their predecessors, the Konbaung Dynasty enjoyed great success in many areas: the economy was strong, internal control was tight, and literature and theatre flourished.
Unfortunately, however, the Konbaung Empire was beset by conflict, including numerous wars with Siam (present-day Thailand) to the east and China to the north. Meanwhile, it also expanded into the west, conquering Arakan, Manipur and Assam. This in turn riled British India and led to the disastrous two-year conflict known as the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26).
The British emerged victorious from the conflict, taking over all of Myanmar's recent western acquisitions as well as Tenasserim. During the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852, they easily seized further Burmese territory, and in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 they annexed the rest of the country - sending the last Burmese king, Thibaw, into exile in India.
In 1886, the British officially made Myanmar a province of India and established a capital at Rangoon (present-day Yangon).
British rule brought about dramatic changes to Myanmar's society and economy. The separation of religion and state, the abolition of the monarchy, the expansion of farming to cater to new international demand - all of this led to huge nation-wide upheavals. Ethnic Burmese were all but completely excluded from their country's increasing wealth, which was concentrated in the hands of the British primarily, then the Anglo-Burmese and Indian migrants.
Though reforms did begin to take place in the early 20th century, allowing for more autonomy for Myanmar and more representation for Burmese people in the civil service, the pace of change was slow. The 1920s saw university strikes and protests which grew into more serious upheavals and eventually armed rebellion against the colonial government by the commencement of the 1930s.
In 1937, the British officially separated Myanmar from India and granted the country a new constitution, a fully elected assembly and a Burmese prime minister. This was not universally welcomed by the Burmese, some of whom feared that this was a move to exclude them from reforms taking place in India. A string of strikes and protests ensued, leaving one Rangoon University student and 17 protesters in Mandalay dead at the hands of British police.
World War II & Japanese occupation
At the outset of the Second World War, it seemed as though the Burmese might be able to use an alliance with Japan to break away from the British. It was around this time that Aung San, the revolutionary considered by most to be the father of modern Myanmar, founded the "Communist Party of Burma" (CPB) and accepted the support of Japan in forming and training the "Burma Independence Army".
In 1942, the Japanese invaded Myanmar, declaring the country an independent state in 1943. It soon became clear, however, that Japanese promises of independence were a sham. Disillusioned with the Japanese, under whose rule it's thought that up to a quarter of a million Burmese civilians were killed, Aung San and other Burmese Communists and Socialists decided on a change of tactic, calling for a temporary alliance with the British and the Soviet Union against their perceived common enemy: fascism.
In 1945, the Burma National Army (formerly the Burma Independence Army, trained by the Japanese and led by Aung San) successfully rebelled against Japanese, routed them from the country, and officially joined the Allies.
After the surrender of the Japanese, in 1947 Aung San was able to negotiate Burmese independence from Britain - to be effected within the year. A month after this agreement, made between Aung San and Clement Attlee in London, Aung San also signed the Panglong Agreement with Shan, Chin, and Kachin ethnic minority leaders, guaranteeing their right to political autonomy if they were unhappy with the situation in Myanmar after ten years. Aung San's Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League then went on to win a landslide victory in the Burmese elections, with 172 seats out of 225. An independent Myanmar was just around the corner, and things were looking up.
Only six months after his meeting with Attlee, however, Aung San and six of his aides were assassinated - allegedly under the orders of U Saw (Myanmar's prime minister from 1939 until 1942, who spent most of World War Two in exile in Uganda). Far from achieving his political end, U Saw was hanged by the British for the murders in 1948.
Myanmar became officially independent in the middle of the night on the 4th of January 1948, under the leadership of Aung San's protégé: U Nu. Almost immediately, the country disintegrated into chaos. Hill tribes took up armed opposition, the communists left the government and went on the offensive, Muslims in Rakhine State voiced their discontent, the formerly peaceful Mon people rebelled, and fighting broke out throughout the country.
First & second military governments
Over the course of the early 1950s, the government gradually took back control of the country - but just as civil unrest was dying down, the national economy began to fail. U Nu remained in government until 1958, when he voluntarily passed power into the hands of General Ne Win and a caretaker military government.
At the time, this was a popular decision. Without the democratic responsibilities of a civilian government, Ne Win was able to make dramatic improvements to internal stability in just 15 short months, and by the time U Nu regained power in the 1960 elections, great progress had been made toward peace in Myanmar.
Unfortunately this was not to last, and Ne Win staged a coup in 1962. A 17-member Revolutionary Council was established, most private property was confiscated and handed over to the state, and mass nationalisation meant that vast numbers of people lost their jobs and many everyday commodities became available only on the black market.
Over the course of the seventies and eighties, Ne Win's badly judged policies caused Burmese standards of living to spiral downward. One such policy was to cancel all but the 45 and 90 kyat notes in September 1987, because these were the only notes that were divisible by nine: Ne Win's lucky number. This sudden decision caused a massive slump in Myanmar's economy, which was later highlighted by the country's admittance into the UN's "Least Developed Country" status the following December.
Amid such governmental incompetence, opposition to the military government unsurprisingly grew. Discontent grew to a head on the 8th of August 1988, during the so-called 8888 uprising, but the peaceful protests were crushed by the government, resulting in an estimated 3,000 deaths and tens of thousands of people fleeing the country.
Following these protests, the military abruptly got rid of the Constitution of 1974 and announced martial law, replacing the government with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), led by Saw Maung. One of SLORC's first moves was to promise to hold multiparty elections in three months. T
Though it took until 1990, SLORC was true to its word and did hold elections - but not before it embarked on an attempt to appease the masses and make victory at election inevitable. This involved abandoning socialism for a capitalist system, sprucing up the streets of Yangon, changing the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, and placing prominent opposition leaders -including Aung San's daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi - under house arrest. Under such conditions, how could they lose?
When the elections were finally held in 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won by a landslide 60% of the vote. The military-backed National Unity Party, by contrast, won only 25%. Despite the decisive NLD victory, SLORC barred the elected members from assuming power - instead arresting and imprisoning many of them.
Two short periods of release in the mid-nineties and the early noughties notwithstanding, Aung San Suu Kyi would remain under house arrest for over two decades in total: from 1989 until 2010.
Meanwhile, in the 1990s, the military junta made an ill-judged attempt to launch Myanmar as a tourist destination. An NLD-led tourism boycott, which was declared by Aung San Suu Kyi and respected by the majority of Western nations, ensured that "Visit Myanmar Year 1996" was less than a resounding success. Increased sanctions from the West drove the government to seek trade with India, China and Thailand, and in 2003 the new prime minister, Khin Nyunt, announced the junta's seven-step "roadmap towards discipline-flourishing democracy".
Khin Nyunt was swiftly ousted and imprisoned in 2004, and his successor, Than Shwe, focussed instead on trade deals, importing weaponry, and establishing the new (extremely expensive) capital of Naypyidaw (AKA Nay Pyi Taw) in 2005.
In 2007, the Burmese military government saw a series of protests sparked by the removal of fuel subsidies, which caused fuel and gas prices to spike. Buddhist monks were at the forefront of the outcry, leading the protests to be misleadingly termed the "Saffron Revolution" by commentators (this despite the fact that Burmese monks wear maroon robes, not saffron). The military quashed the protests by force, but reports differ wildly as to how many people were killed - with figures ranging from 80 into the thousands.
On the 3rd of May 2008, the second-deadliest cyclone in recorded history, Cyclone Nargis, ripped through Myanmar, killing over 130,000 people, leaving two million homeless, and causing an estimated 2.4 billion USD of damage. Even Yangon, which avoided the worst of the destruction, was left without power for two weeks. As if this were not enough, the military government delayed the entry of UN planes bringing relief in the form of medicine, food and other supplies. Instead, they ploughed ahead with plans for a referendum on the Constitution, leaving their citizens to see to relief efforts themselves.
The referendum went ahead, and a new constitution was approved in 2008 amid widespread accusations of voter intimidation, electoral fraud and advance voting. Following this, a general election was held in 2010, and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party declared themselves the victors. The NLD boycotted the elections, which were considered by the UN and Western countries to have been rigged.
Since 2011, the government of Myanmar has embarked on a series of wide-ranging and promising political, economic and administrative reforms. These have included the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and more than 200 other political prisoners, the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, new labour laws to allow unions and strikes, a relaxation of press censorship and regulations on economic practices. Myanmar also welcomed the first visit by a Secretary of State in over fifty years (Hillary Clinton), and the first ever visit by a US president (Barack Obama) in 2011.
In 2012, the NLD participated in by-elections and won 41 out of 44 contested seats, with Suu Kyi herself winning a seat representing Kawhmu Constituency in the lower house of the Burmese Parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi has announced her desire to run for presidency in Myanmar's 2015 general elections, however she is prohibited from becoming president within the country's current constitution.
Despite this recent progress, Myanmar today faces many challenges and criticism from the outside world for its poor handling of the continuing clashes between ethnic minorities in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States. Many commentators feel that initial efforts at reform have sputtered to a halt, and whether Myanmar will continue its positive curve remains to be seen.
- Hpa An
- Golden Rock
- Pyin Oo Lwin
See Myanmar (Burma) through the lens of its colonial past as you visit key destinations from the days of British India.
14 nights: from US$3577 pp (twin share) Read more >
- Mt Popa
- Inle Lake
Our Classic Myanmar (Burma) tour is the perfect introduction to the country; exploring its cultural, historical and scenic highlights.
15 nights: from US$3240 pp (twin share) Read more >